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Santorum’s showing was certainly good enough to keep him in the contest as he tries to wait until he gets a one-on-one shot at Romney. A win in Ohio would have given the former Senator substantial momentum, shaking up the GOP contest dramatically. Although that did not happen, Santorum remains the main conservative alternative to Romney.
Gingrich’s showing on Tuesday was the most disappointing. While he carried his home state decisively, his third-place showing in Oklahoma, Tennessee and Ohio and his fourth-place showing in Massachusetts, Vermont, Idaho, North Dakota and Alaska demonstrate the limits of his personal appeal and, even more important, the limits of his campaign.
Gingrich increasingly sounds out of touch with reality in his primary night speeches. He acts as if he is making progress even though Santorum has eclipsed him among conservatives and Romney no longer bothers to attack him.
And yet, Gingrich remains a factor, as he was on Tuesday. If he wasn’t in the race in Ohio this week, Santorum probably would have defeated Romney, possibly handily.
Romney’s less-than-decisive victory on Tuesday shouldn’t obscure the fact that he continues to be the odds-on favorite to win the GOP nomination. In fact, the results on Super Tuesday added to his delegate lead and make it increasingly difficult to imagine how anyone else in the race can overtake him.
Until now, the Republican race has mostly been about wins and momentum. But with Romney unable to end the contest for the nomination with a knockout blow of his opponents, and with the primary looking as if it could go on well into April, journalists and political analysts are likely to turn more of their attention to the slog for delegates, where Romney already has an advantage.
He not only has a substantial lead in delegates, he also has the money and campaign to compete everywhere he chooses in the weeks and months ahead. His opponents for the GOP nomination do not have that luxury.
Still, Romney’s inability to deliver a crushing blow Tuesday means that the Republican fight is now likely to go on at least into the middle of April. None of the upcoming contests are likely to be so decisive as to destroy the anti-Romney forces. In fact, the Alabama and Mississippi contests on Tuesday are likely to remind conservatives of Romney’s weakness, and a Romney win in Illinois on March 20, assuming it occurs, is not likely to change the current narrative.
That means April 3 could be the next really interesting night, with Romney likely to win in Maryland and the District of Columbia and Wisconsin being a slugfest.
Three weeks later, the Northeast primary, which includes Pennsylvania, New York and Connecticut, could be decisive. But that’s a long way off.
So the GOP race drags on. The nastiness continues. The Republican Party remains divided. And David Axelrod, President Barack Obama’s top strategist, has reason to smile, at least for a while longer.
Stuart Rothenberg is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.